“To eat good food is to be close to God.” – Primo (Big Night)
The fusion of cinema and gastronomy is a marriage of passion and cultural beauty, where the close, personal intricacies of cooking are heightened for a visceral, sensory voyage. Transcending genre and form, from the colourful pleasures of Pixar’s Ratatouille to Juzo Itami’s bizarre culinary western Tampopo, food is as personal to a culture as the cinema that depicts its identity.
Such couldn’t be closer to the truth for Primo and Secondo, two Italian brothers who open a restaurant in New Jersey in Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci’s comedy-drama, Big Night. Named literally after their respective ranks in the kitchen, Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci) share a passionate relationship for their national dishes and the meticulous craft of composing such works of art.
Failing to gain considerable recognition, their restaurant named ‘Paradise’ struggles under its own weight of expectation, with Primo, the head perfectionist chef growing increasingly disgruntled with customers demanding American versions of Italian classics. In one illustrative scene, Primo loses control after a customer asks for a side of spaghetti and meatballs with their risotto exclaiming, “Who are these people in America?”. Continuing in raged fury, he seethes, “How can she want? They both are starch. Maybe I should make mashed potato for another side,” all whilst Secondo simply repeats, “Make the pasta. Make it. Make it”.
Whilst such titular food programmes are par for the course in modern entertainment, with Netflix hosting a whole banquet of shows including, Chef’s Table, Fresh Fried and Crispy and The American Barbecue Showdown, such ‘food porn’ as it is now labelled, simply didn’t exist when Big Night was released in 1996. As a result, where such aforementioned shows focus on the succulent textures of a beef brisket or the gooey, not-so-subtle ridges of a naughty grilled cheese sandwich, in Big Night food is treated with more restrained realism.
Though the tricolour risotto, whole roast pig, and the all-important timpano all look delicious, they are not captured with the same flashy spectacle. In Big Night such frivolities are a waste of time when the food must be cradled, nurtured and treated as if a newborn baby, on its way to a christening. As Stanley Tucci stated in an interview, “You didn’t want to make the food look too kind of beautiful. It just had to look appetizing, not beautiful…“Sometimes I think it looks a little too shiny, a little too posed. The timpano doesn’t really look the way it’s supposed to look. But that said, that’s just me being difficult, as usual”.
Since 1996 of course, the relationship between entertainment and food has changed, with the two engaging in something of a fiery love affair that often flicks between the PG titillation of Nigella Lawson and the offputting grunts of the prosaic Gordon Ramsey. Though, in the same year as Tucci’s film, The Food Network opened up to shows for Mario Batali and Bobby Flay to name just two, with Batali even stating that Big Night was “a cultural milestone for me”.
Whilst Big Night may not have sparked the food porn revolution, it certainly started the foreplay, reminding audiences of the fierce, humorous and passionate romances of humanity’s relationship with gastronomic masticating.